Kelly Writers House:
Where Everybody Gets Involved

 

by Jessica Powers

If I ever move to Philadelphia, I’ll visit Kelly Writers House before I even finish unpacking. And even though I don’t currently live in Philadelphia, I intend to become part of the Writers House community. Why? Because I’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else I’ve visited.

Twelve years ago, nobody had conceived the idea of Kelly Writers House, much less tried to do it. But when The University of Pennsylvania’s chaplain retired in 1994, he vacated his residence at 3805 Locust Walk on Penn’s campus. As different university officials pondered the possibilities for its use, the president of the university suggested that it should be used for something experimental.

“A couple colleagues of mine took me to lunch and asked me what they had heard about this possibility,” says Al Filreis—Faculty Director of the Writers House, Professor of English, and Director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing. “And I instantly suggested it should be a writers’ house.”

Filreis met with the president and provost and they gave him the key to the house to check it out. “I brought in all the way-out writers and faculty members who were risk-takers and said, ‘What should we do?’ I suggested strongly that it should be as communal as possible and we should use the rooms to bring writers. We sat there at one in the afternoon and the next thing we knew, it was dark. There were no lights in the house so we sat in the dark, having planned for eight hours.”

The writers and faculty members agreed that the house should be given over to students and faculty members who were writers, that it should be “a free space or literary incubator not affiliated with any department,” says Filreis.

The president and provost were so charmed—and likely bowled over by the excitement that the plan had generated among these writers—that they agreed to the idea. Paul Kelly—CEO of Knox & Co., an investment banking firm, as well as a Penn trustee—provided the money to fix the house up. Hence the name: Kelly Writers House.

The house was a shambles. “This was free digs for the chaplain’s family, and they were a little reluctant to call the university for maintenance,” Filreis explains. “It hadn’t been fixed up since at least the 40s, and it was over a hundred years old by then.”

The house is an 1851 Tudor style Victorian cottage. Even when it was built, the architecture invoked earlier periods. Thus, Filreis suggests it now holds a “double nostalgia.” “We were able to upgrade it completely, that is, wire it for the fastest Ethernet that you can imagine, while not compromising the Victorian feel to it.”

The old-fashioned feel promotes intimacy, while advanced technology allows Kelly Writers House to offer workshops that require the most advanced equipment, as well as produce worldwide webcasts.

“Writers are very communal people, despite the myth that they’re loners. So we’ve built a social organism,” Filreis says. “Something tells me that writers appreciate that in particular because they tend to be very Internet savvy but at the same time they like a place where they can come to talk.”

With 300 Events Per Academic Year, Everybody Does Something

The Writers House offers 300 literary events throughout the academic year—averaging more than one event per day during the school year. Those events range from poetry readings with literary giants to small workshops led by Penn students or writers in Philadelphia who have ideas they want to pursue.

When I visited Kelly Writers House, it was at the behest of a Penn History professor who realized instinctively that I would bond instantly with the place. He was right. And ten minutes after I met Al Filreis, Filreis suggested that I could run a workshop or class if I came to Penn for graduate school (even though I would have been majoring in History). How often do you get invited to do something like that within ten minutes of meeting somebody, especially without showing your publishing vita?

In an interview posted on the House’s website, the director of Kelly Writers House, Jennifer Snead, states the vision she has for such a vast outlay of literary events: “We want this to be a truly interactive learning community, where you come [to] get involved and have an idea for a program and you help run it. I want to reach out to members of the student community who might not necessarily consider themselves writers or English majors. Everybody writes something in their life. Everybody reads.”

She adds that she loves working at the House because it’s unpredictable—no day is ever the same, but each day brings with it friendship and community. “A lot of people drop by my office during the course of the day, or just drop by the House, hang out, have coffee, read on the couch. That’s very important to us—that people do feel comfortable enough to just come in and read or work on a paper or check email as well as for a program. That’s the one thing that we’re not—just a theater or a venue.”

This is something Al Filreis emphasizes as well. “Our mission is to build community and use writing as an excuse to build community,” he claims. “We love writing, of course, but it’s a means to an end. Universities tend to be very hierarchical, with good reason, because the Brahman of the University have knowledge and the students who come don’t. [At Writers House], we assume that everyone who walks in the front door has something to contribute creatively. This isn’t liberal blather; we actually try to enact it.”

This enacted “liberal” blather allows them to accomplish an extraordinary number of events. For a sample month’s offerings, follow this link: http://www.writing.upenn.edu/~wh/calendar/0305.html.

Nobody (including Penn) Owns Us, Thank You Very Much

At its very inception, Kelly Writers House was intended to be communal in nature. “From the start, we left the apostrophe out [of Writers],” says Filreis. “We’re interested in the collective and not the possessive. It’s just Writers House, without any possessive.”

And as such, though technically the University “owns” Kelly Writers House, it operates autonomously from Penn. “Some 500 people use this space each week and about half of them are not affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania,” says Filreis.

In fact, not all of the people who somehow use the House live in Philadelphia or the surrounding vicinity. “We have gotten a following, as of today, of about 1600 people who are regular members of the large community [but who live] beyond Philadelphia, which is not huge, but this is not mass mailing, this is one-on-one.”

Kelly Writers House Outside of Philadelphia

There are two significant ways writers outside of Philadelphia can participate in the community.

First, all of the poetry readings held at the house are archived on the website through Penn Sound (http://www.writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/). Writers can also listen to these webcasts live if they tune in at the right time. Of course, the effect won’t be same as the intimate setting they try to achieve at the House, with dinner at a round dining table after the reading. But, after all, how many chances do you have to hear Adrienne Rich reading her poetry?

Second, people outside of Philadelphia are welcome to make proposals for workshops or other programs. And Kelly Writers House will look at those proposals seriously and accept them should they fit within the House’s vision.

 But they’ve had to say no to some very interesting writers, not because they didn’t respect that writer’s work or because the proposal was unworthy. “If the proposal doesn’t quite align itself with the interest of the community at the moment, we will sometimes say no with regrets,” says Filreis. “People who look for us know us. They tend to write proposals that make sense to us. The proposals that don’t make sense to us are those written by people who don’t know us and assume we’re just a literary program.”

One thing writers can’t do is abuse or exploit the Kelly Writers House for their own personal writing gain. “We’re not a booking agency,” says Al Filreis. “We don’t have publishers who create a city tour and include Writers House on that. What we do is create a sense of what the community wants and we receive and make proposals for projects and programs based on that.” Hence, writers who receive invitations to speak or read at Kelly House usually get invited because a member of the House loves their work.

So, whether you live near Kelly Writers House or not, get involved. Listen to the taped poetry readings and participate in the live Webcasts. Make proposals, even if you live in Florida or Minnesota. Just make certain, if you really want your proposal to be accepted, that you know enough about the House that your proposal fits within its vision.

All the Extras

Of course, Kelly Writers House isn’t just for writers who want to take workshops and hear readings, or for writers who want to run a workshop or bring their favorite writer to the House. It’s involved in a host of different activities. For example, “Write On!” is an after school literacy program for elementary-age school children who attend Lee Elementary School in Philadelphia. Members of the Writers House community and Penn student volunteers meet with students every week and do creative writing exercises with them.

The House also supports or is actively involved in several publications, such as Combo (a literary journal for poets under the age of 35) or Mosaic, an Asian-American literary journal produced at Penn. Freshbuckets was another such literary magazine, published last year because an undergraduate student decided she wanted to start a literary magazine.

Perhaps the longest standing publication affiliated with Writers House, Xconnect (or Cross Connect), traces its roots directly to the beginnings of Writers House. An ongoing anonymous donation, filtered through Writers House, allows this publication continued life. Still, it is both independent of Writers House and mutually interdependent. For example, it employs primarily Writers House community members to edit and market the magazine.

“I envision the magazine as a publishing arm of the Writers House and would like the magazine to help document the history of visitors to some degree, while maintaining our own sensibility of contemporary writing,” says David Deifer, Editor-in-Chief and Publisher.

“In the same way that Writers House promotes all literary arts and supports a place that’s devoted toward that goal, we strive to provide a place on the printed page,” he adds. “It’s our purpose to review and publish the best of what we receive without judgment leaning toward a particular genre or school of poetics, it’s just all writing. And I believe that’s the way we need to operate since it’s our goal to serve the broader community rather than, say, academics.”

Tenth Anniversary Celebration

On May 13, 2006, Kelly House will celebrate its 10th Anniversary, although technically they’re in their 11th year. Al Filreis says that everybody will be there, all the founding members, right down to Paul Kelly.

He describes the founding members with pride, claiming that most of them left and went on to do, “quite frankly, great things.” There’s Carrie Sharon Wright, for example, who started her own version of Writers House at Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. The first Webmaster at the House went on to work for Amazon.com in web design. Another Penn student and founding member of the House, Elliot Whitney, whom Filreis describes as a “firebrand” and educational reformer, first became involved because he loved seeing students empowered to take charge of their own education. Today, he’s the principal of a hugely successful charter school in Houston, Texas, called KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program). He brings some of his students to the House every year to see what he helped create.

The 10th anniversary celebration will be a chance for people to reconnect to the community, although many of them have remained in touch throughout the years. It’s also a chance to uplift and uphold the values of friendship, creativity, and entrepreneurship that built the community. Last but not least, quite simply, they deserve a huge party after all of the obvious hard work they do. Just looking at the Writers House whirlwind schedule each month makes me tired.

“Everyone will be there [for the celebration],” Filreis says. “It’s been a wild thing and…a strange and exhilarating experience to create something from scratch and watch it grow and see it succeed.”


Jessica Powers is a freelance writer. She may be reached for comments at jlpowers at evaporites.com. You can read her African History column at www.suite101.com/welcome.cfm/african_history.